The three most important device platform vendors -- Apple, Google, and Microsoft -- have each consolidated their mobile and desktop operating systems under a single product leader. This could be taken as a hint of a new industry trend, where each company is looking to consolidate onto single unified OS for all types of devices.
This would be a colossal mistake. The market has shown conclusively that people don't want tablets that work like PCs. They're different. Any attempt to force them together will fail.
But blending the best characteristics of each type of platform? That just might work.
Two points of view
Microsoft has always tried to insist that the tablet is a kind of PC. Microsoft created a variant of Windows XP for tablets way back in 2002. Its strategy around Windows 8 and Windows RT was summed up by then-Windows chief Steven Sinofsky's "no compromises" rhetoric.
That is, Microsoft believed people wanted a single device that they can use to get serious work done -- like a laptop -- and for more casual or frivolous activities, like sitting on the couch answering email or watching movies in the back seat of the car. Windows 8 and its ARM-only cousin Windows RT were meant to serve both masters at once -- the new touch interface was designed for tablets, and a variant of the old Windows desktop was still available for keyboard-mouse applications, particularly Office. (Windows RT does not make the desktop accessible to third-party software vendors.)
Microsoft's all-for-one strategy reached its pinnacle with the Surface, the company's tablet with optional detachable keyboard. Look, Microsoft seemed to be saying, you can have it all. Use it like a tablet at meetings or at home, then click the keyboard on it and use it like a laptop when you need to create a document or munge numbers in a spreadsheet.
Apple took the opposite approach with the iPad: It was based on exactly the same platform as the iPhone and ran iPhone apps. Google is closer to Apple's approach: Android is for tablets and phones, and Chrome OS is for laptops with keyboards and touchpads.
The companies took these approaches largely for business reasons -- Microsoft's strength has been the traditional PC, so it wanted to extend that strength into the fast-growing tablet market. Apple dominated the early smartphone market, so it was only natural to try and leverage that strength into a more general-purpose computer.
Google has the least at stake here -- more than 90% of its revenue still comes from Internet advertising, mostly search, which is incredibly profitable. So it has the time and the cash to play both ends.
One leader, one platform?
Last October, Apple put OS X leader Craig Federighi in charge of iOS as well. Google put Chrome (and Chrome OS) leader Sundar Pichai in charge of Android in March. Most recently, Microsoft put its Windows Phone leader Terry Myerson in charge of all versions of Windows -- including the desktop.
Look hard enough, and you might see a trend.
These companies probably wouldn't mind consolidating everything onto a single platform -- it would lower development costs if they only needed to maintain one platform (and design their own apps and services for that platform), and would make wrangling developer support a lot easier.
But the market has clearly rejected the all-in-one approach.
Surface RT is perhaps the clearest example of this. It runs an operating system, Windows RT, whose interface was designed to make hybrid tablet-PC approaches viable, but it lacks the main benefit of a PC -- running traditional Windows apps. So customers are stuck with an operating system that isn't optimal for tablets, on a piece of hardware that doesn't really work for getting serious work done -- have you tried using a 10-inch screen to run a spreadsheet or edit a complicated Word document? And they can't run other required work apps. Instead of both-and, it's neither-nor.
Reliable sales figures for Windows 8 tablets are hard to come by, as Microsoft doesn't separate out Windows 8 sales by device type. But IDC estimated that during the first quarter of 2013, only 1.8 million Windows 8 tablets were sold. Most of those were Surface devices, boosted by Microsoft's mass market advertising campaign.
Apple, meanwhile, sold about 20 million iPads during that quarter. The top three Android tablet makers, Samsung, ASUS, and Amazon (whose Kindle Fire runs an Amazon-forked version of Android with no links to Google services) sold about 13 million.
Why would the market leaders follow the market laggard's approach? It makes no sense.
A more rational approach
To understand how the platforms might evolve, it's best to look at each company individually.
Microsoft. Windows 8 may not work on a tablet -- defined as a relatively small-screen device with lots of battery life and a detachable keyboard. But there's an argument that touch screens make sense on traditional laptops as well. It's easier to open apps by pointing to a big square on the screen than moving your mouse to a little icon. Touch is great for scrolling through long documents, web pages, or lists of items. It's useful for zooming into particular parts of a screen, or arranging discrete graphical elements in a particular way (imagine Visio or Photoshop on a touch screen), or -- yes -- taking notes with a stylus rather than a keyboard.
So if you buy the idea that touch can be useful on a laptop, and will become more so in coming years as applications evolve -- lo and behold, Microsoft is the leader here.
The trick for Microsoft is getting its legions of traditional Windows developers to make more apps that take advantage of touch. Windows RT and Surface RT were a misguided, back-into-the-problem way of trying to do this -- the idea was that RT tablets would launch and immediately be seen as viable competitors to the iPad (competitive on battery life, in particular). Developers would race to create apps for them, those apps would also work on the Modern touch version of Windows 8, and all would be right with the world.
But Windows RT is a flop. So Microsoft is going to have to rejigger its developer approach to explain how touch can work on a traditional PC, while still encouraging its OEM partners to experiment with convertible and hybrid ideas that might eventually catch on. (I still think there could be a market for dockable tablets with slightly larger screens -- 12 or 14-inch laptop with detachable keyboard might make a nice occasional-use tablet for taking notes at meetings or watching video on the couch at home.)
Meanwhile, Terry Myerson will have to figure out whether and how Microsoft's relatively solid Windows Phone operating system can be upscaled to work on a tablet -- the Apple approach -- or how Windows RT can be totally revamped to work and function more like Windows Phone, then be downscaled to smartphones. There are lots of complicated moving parts here, not least of which how to ease developers through any further inevitable platform transitions without losing momentum.
Apple. In Apple's case, there are aspects of iOS that could make OS X better -- and more competitive with Windows 8 on touch-screen PCs.
Apple already took a step in this direction with the Mac App Store, which borrows the app distribution and installation model from iOS.
The trick for Craig Federighi will be taking the touch paradigms that make sense for a laptop, figuring out how to build them into OS X, and creating the right set of tools and guidance for developers. Successful iOS developers can't just port their programs over to OS X -- they'll have to figure out how and whether those programs even make sense on a full laptop. Traditional OS X developers will have to figure out how and where to add touch to their apps.
There's also a question of the relationship between Macs and iOS devices in the home and workplace. Today, it's akin to a client-server relationship -- the Mac is the central storage unit where users download and create and manipulate content and users sync their iOS devices to that home base.
Here, Apple has a chance to make iCloud the eventual hub for content -- so users can access their stuff from any device, anywhere with an Internet connection, and keep everything in automatic sync across them. That would turn the Mac and iOS devices into peers, rather than the "parent-child" relationship they have today, and would free users from the burden of having to connect the two devices regularly.
Without merging them into the same platform.
Google. In a lot of ways, Google is already where Microsoft and Apple want to be. It's got the world's most-used device platform in Android. It's got the world's most popular browser, which is becoming the basis for another device platform. It has loyal developers for both platforms. It's got a lot of best-in-breed online services that sync reasonably well across different device types. It's even testing the market for a high-end touch-screen laptop with the Chromebook Pixel.
The trick for Google is finding a coherent business model for its device platforms, apart from the "general goodness" goal of having more people spend more time online. Does Google want to become a serious hardware player? The acquisition of Motorola and impending hype about the Moto X, along with the Pixel and Google Glass, suggest it has ambitions there. Does Google want to get more serious about its enterprise services business, providing a real alternative to Microsoft Office and related services from Microsoft? The acquisition of QuickOffice and its inclusion in Chrome suggest maybe.
But again, Google has the least to lose here. It may be enough for the company to keep experimenting with combinations of device platforms and services, even supporting platforms from competitors -- as it's done with its services and apps on iOS -- without rushing into any decisions that are hard to back out of later on.
One thing is for certain, however: When Sundar Pichai says there are no plans to merge Android and Chrome, it's easy to believe him.
New blood, new thinking
Something odd to note: In each company's case, it took the leader of the less successful device platform and put him in charge of the more successful one. OS X is a solid platform, but has nowhere near the market momentum and massive growth of iOS. The Chrome browser has come out of nowhere to build impressive market share in a very short time, but Android literally dominates smartphones and is moving fast in tablets -- and Chrome OS is still a minority player in a shrinking niche market. And Windows Phone, as nice as it may be in some areas, has less than 5% of the market, while Windows is still the dominant PC operating system by a huge margin.
Some of this may simply be personality issues -- former iOS leader Scott Forstall and former Windows leader Steven Sinofsky were known to be challenging to work with.
But it's also interesting that in each case, the companies felt that getting new blood to work on their dominant platform was important. The platform battle is shifting so rapidly, complacency and old thinking simply won't work anymore.